Institutional Innovation: The lynchpin of the next decade of social change

One of my childhood dreams came true recently. I visited NASA’s Houston Space Center. The rockets, rovers, satellites and space station components on display were breathtaking and inspiring. The Mission Control Center was just as I had seen on television. I was awestruck.

One of the things I took away from the visit was something that our tour guide shared with me. He said that NASA has conducted more experiments and pursued more missions than one can imagine, but for one former NASA Administrator, what mattered just as much was how fast and how much the organization itself changed in order to make missions more and more successful.

This blew my mind. This former Administrator’s outlook on mission success factors weren’t just about things like a new solar array design or better astronaut training, but how the organization itself refreshed and adapted between missions. He was producing and testing product innovations and institutional innovations.

Like NASA, what if funders and grantmakers calculated mission success as, among other things, how much their organizations refresh, adapt and pivot between grant cycles?

Like NASA, what if charitable organizations calculated mission success as, among things, how much their organizations refresh, adapt and pivot between fundraising cycles?

I’m participating in Wayfinder, Social Innovation Exchange’s (SIX) upcoming global summit in London, UK to chart a course for the next 10 years of the field of social innovation.

I believe institutional innovation will be the lynchpin that makes social change more and more successful over the next 10 years. It’s time for the field to take a page out of NASA’s playbook.


Institutions — philanthropic, social services, humanitarian, academic, democratic, and among others are embedded in the technologies, cultures, structures, procedures, and permissions of their time. All innovations have a shelf life, including ones that institutions are built on. But we do a remarkable job of letting institutions get attached to sustaining innovations that were successful in the past. We convince ourselves that the transformative change we seek comes from without, not within. This might be safe but it’s bad for solving today’s and preparing for tomorrow’s problems. This is a blindspot.

Institutional innovation means continuously rethinking, developing and refreshing your institution’s cultures, relationships, processes, and structures by looking at governance, accountability, hierarchy, risk tolerance, liabilities, incentives, experimentation, metrics, leadership, interoperability, openness, sharing and among other things.

We can stay focused on tools and interventions, but until institutions constantly refresh to reflect the new cultures, demographics, mentalities, technologies, and structures around them, social change will always be an uphill battle.

In order to make social change more and more successful, institutions need to obsess over themselves. Here are eight obsessions that come to mind:

  1. Unlearn. Institutional innovation means ruthlessly challenging all of your assumptions all the time. Unchecked assumptions can keep an institution from evolving — and thus, become distant from the user. This means unlearning old ways as much as learning new ways.
  2. Shift the power. Take stock of grandstanding and the relational basis for it. Is your recognition skewed toward certain types of stakeholders? Subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of power can calcify and become part of your institution’s identity. Note your institution’s hidden power dynamics with your internal and external stakeholders — and shift them to create greater balance.
  3. Plan for obsolescence. Create an obsolescence plan along with your business or project plan. Hanging on to obsolete models or models that no longer add value can jeopardize your institution’s relevance and effectiveness. When something is about to become obsolete, activate your obsolescence plan, and let it go.
  4. Adopt new technologies. Avoid the hype but systematically make sense of and adopt new technologies. Little things unoptimized grow into big things unoptimized. Big things unoptimized create lag and friction — now you’re into a cycle. New technologies can be new to the world, new to the sector, new to your organization or new to a set of individuals.
  5. Think and act long-term. Institutions often struggle to balance a multi-generational outlook and effects of their work, with a world that is fast-paced, focused on the present, and rewards short-termism. Cultivate a 100-year view as part of constantly refreshing your institution. Address the marginalizations of today, and take the time to make sense of and prepare for the marginalizations of tomorrow.
  6. Tinker and iterate. Experimentation has transformed from an exotic craft tool to a proven mechanism for institutional innovation. Institutions that constantly develop and refresh, and invest in organizational capacities for continuous experimentation are set to deliver greater value. Build assumptions, generate hypotheses, follow questions, experiment, and repeat. With right-sized rigour for the context and without.
  7. Share by default. Institutions aren’t comfortable with sharing, full stop. Hoard by default in a hyper connected world is backfiring. Among other things, it has begun eroding trust and legitimacy. Stop hoarding opportunities, relationships, access, data, and information. Make openness and sharing central to your institutional innovation agenda.
  8. Become data-empowered. The world is undergoing a data revolution. Qualitative and quantitative data — both big and small — are all around us. Technology has created an abundance of data that can be mined, understood, and harnessed to gain new insights about our world. So, harness the power of data science in the service of humanity. Institutional innovation is about creating the conditions and capacities for data, of all kinds to empower your work.

Just as NASA constantly refreshed the organization between missions to make them more and more successful, so can social change leaders and practitioners around the world. The next ten years of social change will be better for it. The next generation will be better for it. And — it will make tools easier to create and far more impactful.

Are you up for the challenge?